Since everyone‘s chipping in now, and despite my own deep reservations about the utility of a referendum as a way of resolving the UK’s relationship with the EU, it is still prudent to make plans for such an eventuality: As David Cameron’s ‘tantric‘ speech looms ever closer, so the likelihood that it will offer a popular vote in some form on membership appears to increase, even if more through thoughtlessness than intent.

Into this mix, we might also add that I’ve been reading a book (for fun, mainly): Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman writes about the way we think (with an instinctive ‘gut’ and a more rational ‘head’) and about the biases that this thinking contains.  In particular, his ideas about availability and “What you see is all there is” are potentially very helpful to us.

Firstly, let’s consider the situation. We have no final decision about a referendum, but we do have indicators pointing that way. We also know that a formal campaign will be bound by the Electoral Commission‘s rules, which will structure debate (and spending on campaigning). We can be confident that any referendum topic presented is likely to be read as ‘in/out’ by most voters and participants, even if membership is not mentioned, and that voting will be shaped by attitudes towards domestic politics before the EU qua EU (a la Second Order voting). Finally, let’s assume that my own position is one of supporting membership, even if all the points here could apply equally well to the anti- position.

Now let’s bring in some Kahneman. He tells us that people are generally lazy in their reasoning, using heuristics to take short-cuts, and rationalising on the basis of what information they are presented with. In evolutionary terms, this has generally worked well, but it is not necessarily appropriate to all situations, hence the emergence of more rational approaches alongside it. While we might like to think that people act and make decisions on a purely rational basis, that’s evidently not true, so we might better assume that people will make decisions in the easiest way possible. As Kahneman says, faced with complex decisions, we often substitute a simpler decision: thus “should the UK remain in the EU?” becomes “do I like the EU?”, since the former requires an evaluation of costs and benefits, while the later is simply affective and can draw on “what I know about the EU”.

So far, this doesn’t look too good: both pro and anti sides spend a lot of time trying to build big banks of research to justify their cases, when it might just come down to ‘chat in a pub’ type attitudes (i.e. over a pint, you will views on most things, without developing a wide-ranging evidence base to support).

But it is also important to recognise that this also opens up a set of opportunities, of which I list three.

  1. Most people have shallow preferences on the EU. It has a low salience, as compared to other issues, so we might expect that while attitudes are currently more negative than positive, that can be easily moved, as in 1975. Associating high salience issues with a pro-EU position would therefore help;
  2. In the current open field of public debate, there is scope to set agendas and develop peoples’ heuristic models. Witness the slow-drip approach of some newspapers and of some sceptic pressure groups, building an image of the EU as bureaucratic, interfering, undemocratic and wrong: none of it is killer stuff, but it has become the default mode for media reporting of European affairs. ‘Brussels’ has a bad name in large part because communication of the alternative is much more complex and journalists use shortcuts too. However, this does not mean that other heuristic models cannot be developed, built around positive values of cooperation, consensus and outputs;
  3. What you see is still all that there is, so there is much scope to put things in peoples’ way to affect their thinking. The closer this comes to a vote, the more available it will be and the more likely to affect behaviour. This might include stressing the positive associations of a choice (e.g. for pros, the access to markets and funding, or the halo effect of membership on the UK’s international standing) or the negative associations of a choice (e.g. the costs of non-membership, in economic and political terms). Even if these associations are not substantiated in fact, they will still affect people’s attitudes, as witnessed by the wilder excesses of sceptic comments.

In brief, I would suggest that if a vote does come, then it will be much more open that most people realise (this is another Kahneman point, that people tend to over-estimate the likelihood of events occurring). However, for this to come to fruition, it will require pro-EU individuals and organisations to mobilise now in order to maximise their chance of influencing people. At the moment, only sceptics seem to have grasped this and consequently are making all the running.

 

UPDATE: with a slightly different reasoning, Jon Worth makes some very similar points in his blog here: I heartily commend it to you.

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Boris Johnson tells us it’s all sorted: David Cameron is going to make his long-awaited ‘tantric’ speech on the EU ‘within weeks’ and he’s going to offer an in-out referendum.

You will recall that this speech has been kicked back several times since the summer and that Cameron himself has given nothing more than veiled suggestions of what might (or might not) be in it.

The unfortunate effect of all this is that the speech is becoming ever more important to all involved, because of the potential it holds for moving British debate forwards from its current ‘phoney war’ status. For sceptics, it will be point where the game is properly afoot, a referendum is called and they can realise their goal of withdrawal; for pro-EU elements, it will either kick a referendum into the long grass, hopefully not to be seen again, or if a vote is called then it will mobilise the currently passive pro-EU constituency to follow in Tony Blair‘s wake in speaking out.

The reason for the delay is also pretty obvious: Cameron doesn’t know (or can’t decide) what to say. As Bagehot noted in The Economist recently, Cameron is hemmed in on one side by his increasingly radical backbenchers and on the other by the clear recognition that moving out of the EU will only marginalise the UK more.

In brief, there would appear to be a number of options of what he could say:

  • Offer an in-out vote this parliament. This is the sceptic maximalist option and very unlikely, given the pressure on parliament’s time, the long list of other (economic) priorities, the likely sundering of the coalition and the current sets of EU negotiations where the UK is already struggling to be heard;
  • Offer in-out next parliament. Less unlikely, since it offers the possibility of bouncing other parties into making the same commitment and (if we believe the polls) making it Labour’s ‘fault’ for falling out of the EU. However, it remains unlikely precisely because it would make it much more likely to tie politicians’ hands on future policy and Cameron has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to exit (in line with Labour and the Lib Dems);
  • Offer a consultative vote sometime to give a mandate to renegotiate membership. This side-steps exit (at least initially) and potentially gives HMG a strong hand to ‘go to Brussels’ to secure concessions. However, the mood across the EU is not a positive one, especially given the big push on EMU reforms, and it’s not hard to see ‘renegotiations’ turning out much like 1974, i.e. nothing of substance. It would also then presumably lead to a second vote on whether to accept the new terms, bringing exit back on the table;
  • Offer no vote, but instead set out his policy of critical engagement, defending British interests, etc. Also unlikely, mainly because it would cause uproar in his party and severely dent his ability to lead them. At best, this would end up just kicking the issue down the road a short distance, only for it to return  with heightened calls for its resolution.

Ultimately, there are no good options left for Cameron. His actions over the parliament (and before) have gradually exposed the flaws in his EU policy: ‘let’s not talk about it’ has been taken by backbenchers to mean that Cameron is with them on leaving the EU, when it actually just means ‘let’s not keep scaring voters that we’ve got nothing else to discuss.’

As Christmas approaches, Cameron is left in an invidious position of his own making. Whatever he does, it will have lasting repercussions.

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I have had the opportunity to research UKIP for many years now, having firstly worked on the party in the mid-1990s.

In that time, I have witnessed its rise from a small group of dedicated campaigners, working solely on the issue of  getting the UK out of the EU, through its electoral break-through in the European Parliament elections in 1999, into its current phase of increased media profile and talk becoming a consolidated part of the party political system. The headlines of recent weeks (“UKIP ‘are third force in British politics’“, “Ukip deserves to ‘be taken seriously‘”) would seem to point towards that being so.

However, my long memory was stirred by this talk: we have been here before. Talk of a sea-change was common in 2004, following UKIP’s success in coming second (with help from Kilroy-Silk) in the EP elections. Thus the Mail said that “the spectacular success of UKIP in knocking the Lib Dems into fourth place, leaving Labour and the Tories with less than 50 per cent of the vote between them, has (for now at least) rewritten the electoral map. We are witnessing a great surge of protest from a public that has had enough.”  The Daily Star wrote about UKIP as “a major political force”, with (then campaign leader) Nigel Farage “boasting” that “UKIP is now unstoppable.”

A quick peek at the Google Trends data for searches on ”UKIP” highlights the reality: within months, Kilroy-Silk had been ejected from the party, which entered into a period of in-fighting, ultimately resulting in a dispiriting performance in the 2005 general election. With the exceptions of the elections in 2009 (EP) and 2010 (UK), UKIP has not secured a structural position in either the media or party politics.

Even the recent media interest does not (yet) represent a change to this, given that much of it can be associated with a concentration of specific events (the PCC elections, the Rotherham fostering story and the three November by-elections). Indeed, as the second graph shows, there has already been a significant down-turn in searches on the party from the initial spike in late November.

In short, I would return to the hypothesis I set out some years ago on the tensions that UKIP has to confront. On the one hand has been successful in exploting its initial niche as an (EU) protest party. On the other, it now suffers from a number of internal difficulties in moving beyond this niche.

Firstly, it lacks an ideological basis. The party is held together by little more than its dislike of the EU. A read of the 2010 manifesto reveals a collection of populist measures, only made possible by assumed (huge) savings from leaving the EU. As Farage himself is often heard to say, UKIP is not just the Tories with a ‘proper’ European policy, but a much broader church. This makes it much harder to generate a coherent and comprehensive programme of government.

Secondly, it lacks depth of resources. Both money and personnel are in short supply for the party. Even with the recent influx of members in recent weeks, membership is roughly 20,000, or roughly 30 per Commons constituency (thanks to Tim Bale for that observation), hardly enough to support either an extensive campaigning strategy (even if it could be afforded): the Green’s 2010 strategy of pouring everything into one constituency isn’t viable. Likewise, the party leadership has been dominated by the considerable figure of Farage (it’s hard to see who else would warrant a piece of the kind the BBC produced this week); only Kilroy-Silk make a similar impact and that did not end well.

Indeed, this points to the third weakness. With its very democratic structure of governance, it is open to individuals seeking to maximise their power and influence. This was discussed by Adebi and Lundberg in a very useful analysis: essentially, the number of posts exceeds the number of moderate (in terms of party policy) individuals, making it easy for those with more radical agendas to gain influence. UKIP has had three major ruptures over personnel and policy since its foundation in 1993, each of which nearly killed it off: even today, the party suffers from defections (e.g. Nikki Sinclaire) by senior figures.

The media like a good headline, and Farage undoubtedly provides good copy, but to present UKIP as the ‘third party’ is a vast over-extrapolation, both of the party and of voters. Just as 2004 didn’t translate into 2005, and 20090 didn’t translate in 2010, so I would expect UKIP’s performance in the 2015 general election to remain a pale imitation of their 2014 European elections performance, even if the latter does leave UKIP as the best represented party in the EP.

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